The French are fond of convenience, especially in the kitchen. Running low on mustard? Don't throw out the jar, just toss in a clove of garlic, add oil, vinegar and whatever else is handy, et voilÃ : a tasty dressing, made with the ingredients at hand.
Kitchen gardens, or potagers (from the French word for soup, potage), follow the same principle. Rather than hiking ' or driving ' over hill and dale to get fresh edibles for the table, many French cooks simply step outside the kitchen door, where herbs, vegetables and fruits flourish harmoniously along with flowers, shrubs and potted plants. They gather what's ripe (perhaps lingering for a bit of sensual pleasure) and go from there. The custom has medieval roots. In their lovingly tended cloister gardens, monks grew all they needed to be self-sufficient. Raised beds were tended by hand, the produce plucked at perfect ripeness and carried to the kitchen just steps away. At the center of perfectly laid walks, a small fountain represented the water of life.
Creating a modern kitchen garden around these old European principles, says Jennifer Bartley, author of Designing the New Kitchen Garden, 'reminds us of the possibilities of balancing spirit, soul and body.'
We Midwesterners persist in thinking of a vegetable garden as a slightly smaller version of Grandma's sprawling half-acre plot. We make it harder (and way bigger) than it has to be. Tuck your herbs and vegetables in amongst your annuals and perennials, and you'll find they're easier to tend, more fun to grow, and a daily inspiration to boot. Closer to home, you'll reap just enough bounty for your own table.
A potager doesn't have to be tiny. Proximity to the house is its defining feature. But if you're a newcomer you might want to start with containers, says Samantha Egan, an Olbrich Gardens horticulturist.
'Don't start digging up your flowerbeds until you know what you like to grow ' and what does well for you,' says Egan, who taught a class on potagers in March, sponsored by the Madison Herb Society.
Simplicity is a virtue when it comes to kitchen gardens. A potager should be practical and pleasurable, not a frustrating, never-ending chore. Hold off on the raised beds, brick paths and espaliered apple trees, at least right at first. Start with a few vegetables you love. Grape or cherry tomatoes (patio varieties) do quite well in containers, as do kale and lettuce. Herbs, of course, love pots. Choose your plants with an eye for how they'll look displayed together. Joy Follendorf of Joyful Gardens, a small landscape design business, recommends herbs with colorful or variegated foliage, such as Magical Michael Basil (showy purple tips and small, creamy white flowers), Variegated Oregano and Tricolor Sage. In the container herb gardens she designed for a local restaurant, Follendorf used compact varieties of basil, thyme and rosemary.
'The herbs got fairly large, fairly quickly,' says Follendorf. 'Less is more ' I'd space them 8 to 12 inches apart.'
Some flowers are edible ' pansies, nasturtiums ' and can be planted in pots alongside herbs and vegetables. In her container gardens, Follendorf added ornamental grasses such as Little Bunny Fountain Grass or Blue Fescue. Fertile soil (amended by you, with compost) and adequate sunlight are a must for container gardening, as is diligent watering.
Larger potagers can be bushy and hearty with red okra, asparagus, broccoli and rhubarb, accented with giant daisies and bearded iris. Or they can be delicate and formal with a profusion of lettuces and herbs, a dwarf fruit tree, clumps of sweet alyssum, and trailing English ivy.
Keys to any pleasing kitchen garden: plenty of color and fragrance, staggered ripening cycles (so not everything's finished all at once), and a bold mixing of annual flowers, shrubs and perennials in with the edibles. Serendipity counts, too. Sometimes your vegetables will surprise you, as Egan's gourd vines did, with luscious blooms of their own.
For early spring, Egan recommends a mix of cool-weather plants like kale, pansies and ornamental greens. Lettuces come in a wide spectrum of colors, from electric green to deep maroon. 'If you let them bolt, you might enjoy looking at the flowers,' she says.
Midsummer stand-outs include nasturtiums, calendula and marigolds. Try the dwarf varieties, and try all three in salads. They have a 'nice fresh flavor,' according to Egan.
In Europe, a traditional potager has: enclosing walls (the monks wove 'wattle fences' from branches), neat paths (often, but not always, laid out like the spokes of a wheel, with the fountain as the axis), and proximity to the house. At the most famous vegetable garden in the world, the potagÃr Ã Chateau de Villandry, 'the lowly vegetable is elevated to an art form,' writes Bartley. There is no transition between the house and the kitchen garden; the fruit trees are espaliered flush against the warm stone wall of the chateau.
Wicker fencing, about 6 inches high, can be found at local landscaping stores such as the Bruce Company. Terracotta containers are best for long-lived plants like fruit trees, but Egan says the lightweight plastic ones are fine for almost everything else. Tomatoes and other vegetables need more root space, so err on the large side. Plant up! Trellises and other structures show off vines and gourds.
For more ideas, visit Olbrich Garden's kitchen garden (found within the herb garden), where this year, among other interesting veggies, Egan will be experimenting with a variegated-leaved eggplant.